The State of Wearables

Priti Moudgill and Sonal Budhiraja

May 15, 2018

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Are wearables dead yet? This question has bedeviled the category ever since Fitbit® first captured our collective imagination just a few, short years ago with its push for 10,000 steps. Fitbit® quickly became a household name, bringing mainstream awareness to wearables.

Technically, wearables had been around well before then, but it was Fitbit® that marked the start of our love-them/love-them-not ambivalence that soon devolved into predictions of their imminent demise.

But fast forward a few years, and wearables are very much alive—thriving even. Wearables have continued to insert themselves into our everyday lives, adding utility in numerous ways and becoming integral to our daily routines. A number of wearable startups have undoubtedly come and gone.

But the good news is that in place of a highly fragmented category, there's been some consolidation—as with the Fossil Group acquiring Misfit. We also saw the entry of some big players like Apple, Alphabet, and Amazon. Their interest in wearable tech is a strong indication that this is a category poised for explosive growth.

Wearables Defined

Before we take a closer look at the state of wearables, let's agree on a working definition of the term. Very simply:
  • A wearable is an electronic device.
  • You wear wearables on your body, on the go.
  • Wearables can connect wirelessly.

But because this definition is fairly broad, it automatically embraces a plethora of wearable sub-categories: fitness, wellness, smart apparel, hearables, medical, military, assisted living, etc. In this article, we have chosen to focus primarily on what one might call "convenience wearables."

Convenience wearables include watches, hearables, trackers, and such everyday, consumer items. Specialized wearables (health-based ones for instance) are still an emerging category, and any write-up about them will likely benefit from a bit of procrastination.

First, the Goodbyes

Pebble, Jawbone, and Doppler Labs each had a loyal fan following and seemed poised for success, yet each imploded for a variety of reasons that ultimately translated to poor market shares.

The Google Glass, on many levels, was technologically brilliant, but it, too, failed in the marketplace because it just didn't feel right. The heavy price tag probably had something to do with its failure, too, but the fact that the Google Glass was mocked mercilessly didn't help. There is a strong likelihood of the Google Glass reappearing in an improved version.

Early, jewelry-tech companies Cuff and Mica never found their footing before shutting down. Ringly and Vinaya, fashion-forward jewelry-tech companies, were both embraced by the stylish set, but ultimately didn't have the sales to stay afloat. Going head-on with Apple likely didn't help many of these early startups—especially those that were relatively low on utility but comparable in price.

The Current Landscape

Based on the numbers from 2017, Apple is winning at wearables—and how! According to IDC, "Apple moved past competitors Fitbit and Xiaomi to claim overall leadership for both the quarter and the year." Apple's LTE watch was largely responsible for this market domination.

But even though wrist-based wearables have gotten the most press so far, there is a lot of buzz about voice being the next big thing along with smart textiles. It is no coincidence that Apple's other wearable, the Airpod, is a hearable.

The rise of voice-based wearables, or hearables, is a reaction to our realization that we are spending too much time staring at screens. Our fear of missing out on emails, notifications, alerts, breaking news, etc., is causing us to miss out on what's happening around us. Sound has a lower cognitive load, meaning we can listen even as we perform other activities.

With the rise of smart assistants like Siri and Google, we can use voice commands to request a podcast, make a phone call, or schedule an appointment. This means of communicating is not only more natural, but it is more efficient, too. For example, asking Alexa to play a song is a simple request, but to drill down menus on a screen to find the right song takes several steps.

The hands-free aspect of hearables comes in handy when you have your hands full; you can use your voice to request an Uber to work. Real-time translation—even biometric authentication—are some of the other advantages of hearables. Some hearables have led to a proliferation of smart-earbud companies of which some of the players, aside from Apple, are Bragi, Samsung, Bose, Jbl, and recently, Google, with its pixel buds.

It is worth adding that most tech is designed for men by men. There is also a separate need for women-centric wearables that fit well into their lifestyle.

While there is no fashion tech company that stands out from the pack, there are several contenders, many recent entrants, and well-known brands like Kate Spade, Rebecca Minkoff, Michael Kors, and Tory Burch. None has made a compelling case or offered a high-utility, standout option.

It is becoming increasingly clear that wearables have to find the sweet spot on many fronts to be successful; they have to look good, add utility, and yet integrate seamlessly into a wearer's life. Fashion tech has yet to deliver a successful wearable that checks all the boxes.
But the good news is that all the components are in place. It's just a matter of time.

The Long View

The infusion of AI into wearables has taken their evolution into a new realm of possibilities. Combine this idea with the extraordinary amount of data collected by wearables in their everyday operation (the so-called movement toward the quantified self), and you get predictive abilities that can change long-term outcomes for many.

Even though our focus in this article is on what we are calling "convenience wearables," the data from these very wearables, when viewed through the lens of AI, has implications well beyond mere convenience.

According to Steve Dent of Engadget, "The Apple Watch may become a useful tool in detecting an abnormal heartbeat, according to a study by heart rate app-maker Cardiogram and the UCSF Health lab."

Another change that is coming to wearables is the disappearing or shrinking screen. Hearables are whittling away at our screen-obsession. With glasses like Intel's Vaunt that use retinal projection, the traditional screen has yet another competitor.

We have talked about a subset of wearables, but there is a lot of excitement around many of the other categories like smart textiles, smart tattoos, neuro-wearables, sleep tech, etc. Not only are wearables not dead; they seem poised for explosive growth.

Priti Moudgill and Sonal Budhiraja are founders of peripherii inc., a hearable tech company. Between them, they have advanced degrees in engineering across three different areas. Priti Moudgill's engineering background includes degrees from Cornell University; Ithaca, NY; and IIT Kanpur, India.

Priti has held engineering, science, and engagement manager positions at IBM. Priti has a strong product instinct with consumer inventions licensed to Conair and Rubbermaid. She has also worked in the fashion industry, designing and manufacturing high-end accessories for clients like Bergdorf's, Theory, Holt Renfrew, Tsum, etc.

Sonal Budhiraja has a graduate degree in electrical engineering from LSU and B.Tech from NITK, India. For her second master's thesis in Biomedical Engineering from Rutgers, Sonal tinkered with programming a glove for use in virtual surgery. Sonal has also worked as a developer and writer at various software companies like SAP and IBM.

Opinions expressed by the author are not necessarily those of WITI.

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